How might speculative fiction help educators teach gender and ethnic studies to their students? What would it mean to reimagine the Pacific in an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and decolonial way? What kind of world could we have if we thought beyond the normative story?  

In episode 77 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with transnational feminist studies professor Aimee Bahng about how speculative fiction and other geeky genres help us to imagine and create radical, queer of color feminist futures; how professors can link classroom activities to local social justice movements; how Indigenous thought and politics are challenging US colonialism across the Pacific; and why moving away from statistics is such an important part of how Aimee imagines otherwise.

Guest: Aimee Bahng

Aimee Bahng wearing a black shirt and colorful scarf, in front of green leaves, text reads "Aimee Bahng, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 77"Aimee Bahng is an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at Pomona College.

She’s also the author of the Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, which was published by Duke University Press in 2018. That book examines narrations of futurity across various platforms from speculative fiction by writers of color to the financial speculations of the 1 percent.

With teaching and research interests at the conjuncture of transnational Asian/American cultural studies and feminist-queer science and technology studies, Aimee has published a range of articles on techno-Orientalism and Asian/American speculative fiction.

Aimee is currently working on another book manuscript, tentatively titled Transpacific Ecologies. Focusing on Pacific contexts of nuclear subjection and ecological management born out of the post-WW2 era, the project foregrounds feminist, decolonial approaches to thinking across species difference and planetary futures.

 

We chatted about

  • Aimee’s latest book Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (02:18)
  • Aimee’s work at the intersection of academia, creativity, and social justice (06:17)
  • Connections between speculative fiction and gender/ethnic studies (09:16)
  • Aimee’s current project on radical Pacific imaginaries (11:49)
  • Imagining otherwise (15:30)

Dark green fern. Text reads "What might it mean to rethink out ecological policy from the undercommons? Across scales of life and non-life, environments are tied together and require moving forward in an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and decolonial way." Quote is from Aimee Bahng on episode 77 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastTakeaways

Aimee’s latest book Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times

The real goal of the project is to get us to imagine our orientation to the time/space of the future differently from the fantasies of global capitalism—global racial capitalism—and to look to speculative fictions drawn from lived experiences of alienation, abduction, and displacement among migrant communities.

Connecting academic work to contemporary social justice struggles

I want to connect the work of imagining a better future with actually putting that into practice. That gap can sometimes feel really incommensurable and daunting, but at the same time there’s something about the accretion of small acts, a subtle but radical shift in our orientation to how we think about and care for others.

How speculative fiction can be used to teach gender and ethnic studies

The defamiliarization that speculative fiction drops you into in the first few pages provides an occasion for you to scrape down your assumptions about how the world works. This is key to the work that we do in gender studies and ethnic studies about imagining social hierarchies totally upside down or even beyond upside down, to make the idea of hierarchy completely alien.

Aimee’s current work on radical Pacific imaginaries

If we begin from Indigenous thought, then we immediately begin to see that what many folks have imagined as ‘the transpacific’ is already caught up in all these settler ideas about ownership, about management, about incursion and extraction. I want to sit with the question of what might it mean to rethink our ecological environmental policy from the perspective of a kind of undercommons, where we understand across scales of life and non-life that these environments are tied together in ways that insist upon moving forward in an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and decolonial way.

Imagining otherwise

For me, thinking about what queer feminist practice is or disability justice or environmental justice is, it’s requiring us to think about those points on the data map that exceed the normative story. I want to hear those stories. I want us to be as a world attuned to the stories that statisticians will call insignificant.

More from Aimee

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 77 and my guest today is Aimee Bahng. Aimee is an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at Pomona College.

She’s also the author of the Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, which was published by Duke University Press in 2018. That book examines narrations of futurity across various platforms from speculative fiction by writers of color to the financial speculations of the 1 percent.

With teaching and research interests at the conjuncture of transnational Asian/American cultural studies and feminist-queer science and technology studies, Aimee has published a range of articles on techno-Orientalism and Asian/American speculative fiction.

Aimee is currently working on another book manuscript, tentatively titled Transpacific Ecologies. Focusing on Pacific contexts of nuclear subjection and ecological management born out of the post-WW2 era, the project foregrounds feminist, decolonial approaches to thinking across species difference and planetary futures.

[01:26] In our interview, Aimee and I discuss how speculative fiction and other geeky genres help us to imagine and create radical, queer of color feminist futures; how professors can link classroom activities to local social justice movements; how Indigenous thought and politics are challenging US colonialism across the Pacific; and why moving away from statistics is such an important part of how Aimee imagines otherwise.

[To Aimee] Thanks so much for being with us today, Aimee.

Aimee Bahng: Hi Cathy, it’s great to be here.

Cathy: So I’d love to start off by talking about your book Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, which was recently published by Duke University Press and has made a giant splash across a huge number of disciplines. What got you interested in writing about speculation? I love

Aimee [02:18]: I love telling this story because it’s a modest one about how we grow up reading, what our reading and thinking practices are from the very beginning, and how they grow through the rest of our lives.

I was a nerd kid growing up in LA in the San Gabriel Valley. I started reading speculative fiction one day when I wandered into my local bookstore and Octavia Butler was doing a reading. I was totally besotted from that moment.

Increasingly I was finding myself in these subcultural geek worlds, whether it was the video arcade or Dungeons and Dragons arenas or whatever, thinking, “Wow, there’s a potential for this space—what we would conventionally call ‘white geek boy space.’” So many of the folks that I was bumping elbows with there were people of color, queer people of color. And it was a really wonderful space for us to form community.

[03:19] I had this question even from a really young age: what is it about speculative fiction——what we were then calling science fiction, fantasy horror, the sort of non-capital-L “Literary” genres—what is it that is drawing these folks and these conversations to the table? Is there something more interesting going on than just white geek boy culture, which was all around us?

San Gabriel Valley is the site of CalTech [California Institute of Technology], home to the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but also home to Octavia Butler. I kind of like the way that situates me as somebody writing about speculative fiction at a certain conjuncture of science and fiction being produced around me all the time.

[04:13] Fast forward 30 years and speculation started coming up in a different context in the financial context. I was finishing my dissertation writing on the heels of two major events. First, the passing the Octavia Butler, and second, the financial crash crisis of 2007/2008. I was beginning to also really sink my teeth into a lot of queer theory on futurity. A lot of the questions were about how the future may or may not be already colonized and the future as a contested terrain, as space of a lot of different narratives of who’s going to populate that future, how we imagine it, and how that informs the material choices we make now.

These were coming to light and all these really important ways. So I decided to that this book was not only going to be about science fiction written by people of color, but really a bigger conversation about how we fight for that imagined terrain of futurity from marginalized, underrepresented, submerged spaces.

[05:17] The real goal of the project is to get us to imagine our orientation to the time/space of the future differently from the fantasies of global capitalism—global racial capitalism—and to look to speculative fictions drawn from lived experiences of alienation, abduction, and displacement among migrant communities.

The really stunning provocation that hit me was reading work by Octavia Butler and thinking about what it meant to think about alienation and abduction—these classic science fiction tropes—against the backcloth of slavery and deportation and all of the racialized violences of settler and future neocolonialism.

Cathy: How do you see your work combining your interest in academia or scholarship with an interest in creativity and social justice activism?

Aimee [06:20]: I’ve been having this conversation a lot with students, not so much just about my work but about the possibilities and limitations of intellectual production in these sort of conventional spaces of academia. A lot of us are reading Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons and that’s informing the conversation.

I’m sitting here right now in my beautiful office at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and I cannot in good conscience call myself any kind of radical, which isn’t to say that there aren’t professors out there who are doing amazing work on the ground. I was reminded of Dean Spade’s visit to Pomona last year. Dean, as you know, is working in trans legal justice and at the same time is utterly reimagining where that justice needs to take place.

[07:15] I cut my activist teeth as an undergraduate student fighting for Asian American studies and Chicano studies at Princeton University. And I understand that that is just one small piece of the fight. I continue to do the work within the university, harnessing a lot of the power and the privilege that we have here in order to shine a light on the social movements that I am interested in supporting and being a part of beyond the university.

I was at Dartmouth College for awhile (as folks might know) and there I worked with my colleague in history and African American studies, Reena Goldthree. The two of us, in conjunction with many other interested faculty, ran a Black Lives Matter course, which in its second iteration made its primary aim reaching out to activists on the ground.

We were able to bring Darnell Moore in to speak with students about the importance of getting their voices out there, telling their stories, and connecting them to their communities and the work that they wanted to see done. A lot of their assignments were specifically about going out and being humble participants and listeners to social movement activists who have been around for a long time.

[08:23] We were also able to bring in more local activists, like Los Angeles Community Action Network  (LA CAN) organizer and source of energy and inspiration, Pete White. I’ve been really, really excited about reconnecting with him in LA CAN on various measures and actions in the LA area.

A lot of this work has informed my more academic publications because I want to connect the work of imagining a better future with actually putting that into practice. That gap can sometimes feel really incommensurable and daunting, but at the same time there’s something about the accretion of small acts, a subtle but radical shift in our orientation to how we think about and care for others. I’m thinking structurally about the systems that may or may not have the best interest of the communities that I want to serve.

Cathy [09:16]: In addition to writing about speculative fiction and loving it for a long, long time, you also been a juror on [James] Tiptree literary award panel, which awards prizes for feminist and queer speculative fiction novels and short stories. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what kind of speculative fiction you like to read for fun.

Aimee [09:38]: I remember once thinking that my relationship to high-school English class reading felt like speculative fiction to me and a lot of other folks. Like [reading] Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace—these were East Coast prep school boy worlds that I found utterly alienating and mystifying and had no real sense of. So that’s, that’s the glib answer, but that’s not the stuff that really gets my imagination going.

I think the defamiliarization that a lot of speculative fiction drops you into in the first few pages provides an occasion for you to really scrape down your assumptions about how the world works. This is really key to a lot of the work that we do in gender studies and ethnic studies about imagining social hierarchies totally upside down or even beyond upside down, to make the idea of hierarchy completely alien.

[10:41] The classics for me are the work of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I really enjoy a lot of Ted Chiang’s short stories. I know that Octavia Butler was also a big fan [of Chiang].

What really got me was reading was the first few pages of Octavia Butler’s Dawn, which is the first in the Genesis trilogy, otherwise known as the Lilith trilogy. Lilith wakes up and she has no idea where she is. The story unfolds and you have to learn the world that she’s entered right along with her and you get tripped up over your own assumptions about which end is up, what the laws of physics are, how a ship might work, how race relations might transpire, how people even imagine intimacy, and how nonhuman species might want to interact with humans. There’s just so many wonderful openings up of possibility that do a lot of work to erode our normative frameworks.

Cathy [11:49]: What projects are you working on now?

Aimee [11:51]: I’m toying around with a couple of different names. One is called Transpacific Ecologies, but I also might make a decisive move toward this other option, which is Toward a Transpacific Undercommons. That project is about looking to the Pacific in a way that doesn’t replicate US military and economic developments in the Pacific theater, but instead is approaching the Pacific neither as a monetized nor some sort of securitized space. It is not this evacuated expanse, but is a set of ecologies home to islands and reefs, human and nonhuman denizens.

[I’m also looking at] the way the transpacific, which is a problematic term, already signals the way that nation-states and corporations are parlaying across the Pacific. But as decolonial thought has taught us, if we begin from Indigenous thought, then we immediately begin to see that what many folks have imagined as the transpacific is already caught up in all these settler ideas about ownership, about management, about incursion and extraction.

[12:58] I want to sit with the question of what might it mean to rethink our ecological environmental policy from the perspective of a kind of undercommons, where we understand across scales of life and non-life that these environments are tied together in ways that insist upon moving forward in an anticapitalist, anticolonial, and decolonial way.

The book is moving through a few sites of inquiry. There are these massive land reclamation projects in Singapore, in the South China Sea (some might call it the West Philippine Sea), where they’re pumping sand from the sea floor onto coral skeletons, bleached out corals that have died. [This is] in order to increase their land mass and therefore claims to really important shipping lanes because nation-states measure your ownership rights to oceanic waterways via distance from the shore. Anyone who actually studies ecologies knows that that is a moving target. I think that’s an interesting place where again, financial speculation and land speculation are coming together to tell us these stories about how environmental management might be mapping onto preexisting sites of colonization.

Cathy [14:17]: That’s fascinating! And disturbing.

Aimee: Totally, right?

Cathy: Is that made-up land, that created land, used for anything other than to make a legal claim? Like can you build anything on it?

Aimee: Oh yeah. Guess what they’re building?

Cathy: Factories or something?

Aimee: It’s far worse. Military bases.

Cathy: Of course, of course.

Aimee [14:37] Also, casinos. The work that I want to reference at this point is Vernadette Gonzalez’s Securing Paradise. And actually the larger conversation is about the military and how those two things have come together in really interesting and stunningly harrowing ways. To think about land that is primarily military bases and gambling is to shine a light on the ways in which that whole thing—Achille Mbembe would call it a war machine—is fueled through trying to securitize risk, which is game theory, which is casinos, which is financial speculation, which is about insurance in all these ways that I think are connecting back to Migrant Futures and thinking about the colonization of the future.

Cathy [15:30]: Absolutely. So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at that big why behind all of these kinds of projects that you do. That’s that world that you’re working towards when you mentor students or teach classes, when you write these books, when you go down the rabbit hole in these really fascinating research projects, when you do these kinds of collaborative community activism endeavors. What kind of world do you want?

Aimee [15:58]: I’m interested in moving away from a kind of calculated metrics assessment of our world. I want to think about the history of statistics. Disability studies scholar Lennard J. Davis points out that the first three major statisticians were also heavily into the eugenics movement.

So the science fiction project, the Migrant Futures project, was really about stories that get told from a kind of statistical undercommons. Samuel Delaney called speculative fiction a genre of para-literature. It’s the production of words and worlds beyond the established literary canon.

I was thinking about what is at stake actually in normativity. That is a statistical term. It’s a term taken from statistical science where you approximate the area under a curve, where you try and draw a line across a set of data points.

[17:03] For me, thinking about what queer feminist practice is or disability justice or environmental justice is, it’s requiring us to think about those points on the data map that exceed the normative story. I want to hear those stories. I want us to be as a world attuned to the stories that statisticians will call insignificant.

In Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s brilliant essay “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” one of the settler moves to innocence that they articulate is the asterisking of Indigenous peoples and their worlds. There is a dismissal of Indigenous populations in sociological or economic predictions or algorithms that reduce Indigenous populations to statistical insignificance without accounting for the reason why: histories of genocide and land theft and displacement.

I think that the promise of an empirical metric through which we can assess and view the world is really limiting and I would like us to get to a schema of care for this planet, for each other, for our elderly, for our young, for the sick, and for the poor who are statistically marginalized.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us and giving us so many different ways that we can imagine and create otherwise.

Aimee: Thank you, Cathy. I really appreciate all the work that Ideas on Fire is doing and I’m honored to have been a part of this conversation.

Cathy [18:32]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]